Friday, July 22, 2016

Ground Rules: Starting a Climate Change Debate

Kenneth H. Laundra, Ph.D.

Conversations about climate change are too often reduced to ideological arguments, ending in fractured feelings and indignant stances that harden over time.  Just when we need to talk about solutions to the crisis, we find ourselves mired in the quicksand of rhetoric and political innuendo. Try talking to a climate change denier about climate change and soon you’ll be talking about “climate gate”, Benghazi or Obamacare, instead of talking about advances in clean energy technology that can save us from pending environmental calamity. For the deniers, climate change is simply a political issue, so you’ll fail to convince that person that it is real and imminent. Since it is merely a political issue, like with religion, the subject of climate change has become too sensitive for polite conversation, and even taboo in mixed social settings (like the 2008 Presidential election).
So here we are. At the precise moment in time when humanity should be sounding the alarm on climate change, and working to offset the effects with a myriad of technological and social solutions now available, we are instead choosing to ignore the reality of our situation on this planet, which is, according to the brightest brains using the rigor of scientific methodology, quite dire. Unfortunately, the political schism that has deepened in this country has also co-opted any rational discussion of climate change, resulting in ideological dismissals on both sides that stifle any meaningful conversation about it, typically reduced to emotional outbursts instead of understanding. So we watch the glaciers melt faster than our frosty opinions, because we too often hold our convictions closer to our hearts than we do the facts. So how do we overcome this rhetorical obstacle to climate change awareness? Given the current ideological divide, I think we need to first talk about how we are going to talk about it.

In order to have a meaningful conversation like this, you must first agree to use a common language. We talk with words, which represent specific ideas. So, if two people are using the same words, but those words have different meanings, then you are not talking with that person, you are just talking to that person. They don’t understand what you’re saying. Worse than that, they think they understand what you’re saying because the words you’ve used mean something else to that person. You are not standing on the same conceptual ground, and you misunderstand each other.
Establishing the ground rules – the rules by which your conversation will stand on – is imperative for having a meaningful conversation. This means agreeing on a common language and, in the context of climate change, it means agreement on what form(s) of knowledge are within range and, in turn, what forms of knowledge are out of range. In the case of climate change, the universal language we must all use is the language of science. It is simply the most rigorous and reliable source of knowledge on the matter, so we have to collectively agree to base our opinions on it, even if it rubs up against other beliefs or ideologies we may hold dear. And to be a good scientist, you must also be willing to change your mind. If you can’t entertain the possibility that an objective conversation on climate change might change your mind, then you shouldn’t bother in the first place, because the goal of this particular conversation is to find consensus on what to do, if anything, about climate change; and this is not merely an academic or philosophical debate, because we are ultimately debating future action which will rely on consensus-building, and this will ultimately require somebody to change their mind.

Unfortunately, as the so-called “national debate” over climate change ensues, it is largely driven by a politically-minded, profit-driven media that are more than happy to over-hype straw man positions on the subject, using purposely opaque and passing reference to the actual knowledge base, and panel discussion among experts of disrepute in formats that pass as real news. So no incentive even exists for consensus-building around the scientific evidence, or for changing minds. This is a troubling stalemate because, if we accept science as our common language in this debate, we are running out of time.

As an example, allow me to collapse a number of conversations I’ve had over this issue with colleagues, students, friends and family into a single, prototypical one. You may find this conversation familiar to you. It goes like this:

CLIMATE CHANGE DENIER: “I think global warming is real, but I’m not sure it’s entirely a man-made thing, and I’m not sure there’s even anything we can do about it. I mean, the science isn’t settled yet. There is honest disagreement among the experts. We should wait before we take any big action, until we know more about it.”
CLIMATE CHANGE BELIEVER: “Actually, there IS consensus among most of the scientists that climate change is real, that it is man-made, and that the problem is becoming increasingly perilous to life on this planet, in a way never before experienced by humankind.”
CLIMATE CHANGE DENIER: “Well, you don’t know that for sure. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

After somewhere between twenty seconds and two hours of back and forth, the parties agree to disagree. Stalemate.

Been there?

It’s as if we’re talking about a moral, philosophical or spiritual issue, like abortion, socialism, or god in government. But we are not talking about those things. We are talking about climate change, a subject that is inherently and necessarily grounded in the scientific method, which is the most trustworthy form of knowledge we have devised as a species and, in this case, the form of knowledge having the only true bearing on any conversation over climate change. Climate change is a scientific issue, not a moral or political issue, and this deserves to be emphasized.

Consider how bizarre it would be for me to approach my mom or brother, who have both owned and operated a steel construction company for decades, suggesting to them that the buildings they construct might be stronger if they used wood or plastic instead of steel. I would immediately be dismissed as ignorant (or insane) because, to be honest, I don’t know the first thing about steel construction companies or how to make strong buildings. But I did recently see an article online that described a new plastic polymer that is said to be stronger than steel, so I know that my opinion is based, in fact, in fact. In fact is it. Not knowing much else about steel construction, I am not swayed by their further criticism of my claim, involving something about architectural integrity, capital cost incursions, international market prices, and OSHA standards (this is, by the way, a total guess).
Now imagine if I renounce their informed skepticism about my idea by saying, “well, you don’t know that for sure. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

You can see how obviously wrong I would be. In fact, it would be weird and kinda creepy. This is because I am offering an uninformed opinion based in a way of knowing that is not relevant to the issue at hand. My assumption that my uninformed opinion based in limited knowledge about steel construction should carry the same weight as one who occupies the field and who has a more complete, comprehensive understanding of the forces at play in the construction business – that it should actually have equal merit – is a faulty one. To further cloud our opinionate debates, particularly one like climate change, we have to also understand that our brains are biased toward what we already believe, due to our neuro-psychological tendencies to absorb information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and values, what cognitive psychologists call a confirmation bias (one of many biases that color our worldview).  As Michael Shermer puts it, “Belief comes first. Evidence for belief comes second.”

In this way, we believe our opinion is equally valid because I believe opinions that draw on evidence are as equally valid as those opinions from anyone else who makes an evidence-based claim. But evidence does not equal fact, and a fact is only as good as the manner by which it arrives. And this is how climate change conversations usually go astray. We conflate various forms of evidence as equally true. We assign equal value to any claim that references a “fact”, regardless of how that fact comes to us.

In our technopoly, this modern information age we live in, facts are cheap and they enter our consciousness from all directions in rapid-fire succession. Most of these facts come at us filtered through an institutional agenda, such as the facts surrounding a woman’s biological capacity to “ward off” rape sperm to avoid pregnancy, the facts surrounding violence and guns in America, or the facts surrounding job growth under President Obama. But some of these facts come at us from more rigorous scientific inquiry via the established ground rules for discovery based in the scientific method. This is a very different way of fact-finding and, although science itself can be filtered through an institutional agenda as well, the knowledge attained through this method is still, by far, the most precise and useful way to know something in order to solve a complex global problem like climate change. When it comes to understanding the real, physical world in which we actually live, it is this method that gave us the gift of an evolved awareness of our place in the universe (e.g. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein) and beyond (e.g. quantum physics), and which now gives us the gift of our more Earthy awareness about climate change.

This is not to say that science is always right (my brother reminded me that scientists once thought the Earth was flat, and that some still do). But science is also a method by which we discovered we were wrong and, because it is a method for understanding something, it is the reason why we continue to find truth through the mist of myth and superstition that have fogged our past – like the myth we shouldn’t take action to reduce greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere because we still don’t know enough about it, or because god will take care of it somehow.

You can form your opinion on climate change by citing a filtered fact, or you can form it by citing the sources of fact, which in this case is the congruent evidence that comes to us via the scientific method employed in climatology, Earth science, geology, physics, anthropology, sociology, history and many other divergent studies – all of which derive conclusions grounded in the scientific procedure, and all of which agree that, as a matter of species survival, we better get on top of this thing.

To do this, we must not allow biased claims funded by the very multinational corporations who will suffer from any redirection of current energy policy, or by those with the loudest voices who simply scream through their media megaphones, to carry the same weight as hard science. This would be equivalent to giving a sociologist’s opinion on how to run a steel business the same weight as that of the owner of that steel business. This would be obviously absurd because the sociologist does not understand the language of the steel business, and vice versa. In a very real sense, they speak a different language, so it becomes impossible to find common ground for consensus.

So with climate change, we need to start speaking the same language, the language of science. Until we agree to talk in words we can all agree on, words that have the same meaning to everyone, how can we agree on anything? After all, when was the last time you changed your mind about something after listening to someone speak in a language you could not understand? So let me end with this:

я верю в науку

You believe it too, don’t you?